Not Fade Away:
Why Buddy Holly still resonates, 50 years later
The bodies lay in a snowy field for nine hours before anyone found them. By then, they were certainly frozen. It was 18 degrees when, just after midnight on February 3, 1959, pilot Roger Peterson, disoriented by darkness and blowing snow, powered his red-and-white Beechcraft Bonanza at 170 mph into an Iowa stubble field. Peterson died in the smashed cockpit, but his three passengers were thrown clear. The Big Bopper lay about 40 feet north of the plane. Ritchie Valens was on the south side, 17 feet away. And Buddy Holly rested nearby in his yellow leather jacket, partially covered by snow that had been falling softly all night.
Buddy Holly was the first of the early rock stars to die young. But unlike Jim Morrison or Janis Joplin or Otis Redding or Sam Cooke, Buddy has never really left the building. Inspired by Holly’s group, the Crickets, the Beatles named themselves after another bug, and their first recording was a cover of Buddy’s breakout hit,That’ll Be the Day. The rights to Holly’s song catalog are currently owned by Paul McCartney.
As for the Rolling Stones, the first track on their first U.S. album was a cover of Buddy’s Not Fade Away. When Garth Brooks sang Don McLean’s 1971 elegy to Buddy, American Pie, at the Obama Inaugural Concert, it may have seemed an odd choice for a celebratory occasion with its lament that Holly’s plane crash was ‘the day the music died.’
The Rolling Stones, 1964 “Not Fade Away“
But, over the past half-century, the name of Buddy Holly has become a touchstone for anyone who wishes to summon up authenticity in popular culture. In the 1973 movie, American Graffiti, the Paul LeMat character says, ‘Rock and roll has been going downhill ever since Buddy Holly died.’ And in one Miami Vice episode, Don Johnson berates his pet alligator for eating his ‘entire Buddy Holly collection.’
Exactly. The place Buddy Holly holds in American memory is all about loss.
The first loss was that of Holly’s own overwhelming talent and promise. In his astonishing brief, Mozart-like flowering, he released nine top-ten hits in the eighteen months before he died at the age of 22. He was the first pop star to play his own lead guitar, a Fender Stratocaster. He was the first to write and record his songs with his own backup group ‘ commonplace now but an unheard-of concept at the time.
Touring with Holly in 1957, for instance, the Everly Brothers had to hire different sidemen in every city, while the Crickets provided their own backup. ‘Phil and I never thought of going around with a self-contained group like that,’ Don Everly told Philip Norman in his excellent Holly biography, Rave On. ‘It made them seem real independent and solid against the world.’
On January 31, 1959 ‘ two days before the crash ‘ Buddy and the Winter Dance Party performed at the National Guard Armory in Duluth, Minnesota. In the crowd was the young Bob Dylan, then still Bobby Zimmerman. When Dylan won an Album of the Year Grammy nearly 40 years later, he sentimentally recalled that night, crediting Holly for ‘being with us all the time we were making this record in some kind of way.’
Another loss was that of national innocence. Buddy’s death was the first tragedy to dominate the landscape of the 1960s. The art-deco Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa, where Buddy and the touring Winter Dance Party played their last concert, still stands, the earliest shrine on a grim cartography that in less than a decade would include Dealey Plaza in Dallas, the Audubon Ballroom in Harlem, the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, and the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles.
The loss was felt most strongly by the influential generations coming of age then: the so-called ‘War Babies’ born during World II and the bleeding-edge Baby Boomers who were in secondary school during Holly’s emergence. Teenagers did not really exist as an identifiable interest group (or consumer market) in America until the first Baby Boomers turned 13 in 1959. They were then presented with a fresh-faced product of Lubbock, Texas, who was tall and geeky and, unheard-of for an entertainer of any kind, wore black horn-rimmed glasses.
He was not a sex symbol like Elvis. He did not make country music like Hank Williams nor ‘race’ music like Chuck Berry or Fats Domino. He was not outrageous like Little Richard or Jerry Lee Lewis, and he was not urban and Eastern like Paul Anka or Frankie Avalon.
Buddy Holly was an original, most notable for all the things he was not. His was the embarrassing face every adolescent white kid saw when he looked in the mirror. If Buddy could succeed with Peggy Sue, so could we. Even his name – Buddy! – seemed friendly and reassuring.
On one level, songs like Peggy Sue and That’ll Be the Day were about awakening sexuality within the confines of a familiar, stable world ‘ the Eisenhower years. But the uninhibited, joyfulness of songs like Oh Boy! speak also to latency, the pre-puberty stage of an individual’s life when the imagination is free to fantasize without being bombarded by sexuality and insecurity. The Fifties had been a time when fun and freedom for teenagers were carefully proscribed. Buddy’s music was about letting go of those bonds and feeling free to play without fear of consequences. In American Pie, Don McLean alludes to how the Kennedy assassination and the chaotic Sixties followed the music that ‘used to make me smile.’ The Beatles absorbed Buddy’s playfulness in their early years, but by then the War Babies and Baby Boomers were in older adolescence and already feeling the loss of latency. They began to invent a self-narrative based on premature nostalgia for a time of innocence they may never have actually experienced but could access through Buddy’s music.
If Buddy had lived, he would turn 73 this year. During the week of the 50th anniversary of his death, his widow Maria Elena will travel to the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, along with members of the families of J.P. Richardson (The Big Bopper) and Ritchie Valens and other survivors of the Winter Dance Tour.
Buddy’s older brothers Larry and Travis Holley still live in Lubbock. His high school girlfriend Echo McGuire still returns for reunions of the Lubbock HS Class of 1955. The kids who discovered their generational identity through his music a half-century ago are in their sixties now. For them, Buddy Holly will forever stay in a distant mirror, standing in for the youth and bright future they once anticipated but can never reclaim.
Weezer. “Buddy Holly“
Selected sources: Rave On by Philip Norman (Simon & Schuster, 1996); interview with Dr. Thomas E.L. Singer, Jungian analyst.
Landon Y. Jones is the former editor of People and Money magazines and the author of Great Expectations: America and the Baby Boom Generation, which coined the phrase, “baby boomer.” His most recent book is William Clark and the Shaping of the West (New York, 2004).